NEW ZEALAND: SOUTH ISLAND
The perfect backdrop for a fairy tale
South Island kicked off with a pretty rough morning as Wellington treated us to a good night out and we got back to the hostel well past 3 am. The ferry ride across Cook channel was at 7 am… go figure! I bet It was quite entertaining for the fellow passengers to watch a bunch of not so functional backpackers trying to take a nap on chairs, benches, stairs, floor - whatever you could score at that point, really. The ride only took a couple hours so we were back on the green bus in no time.
Yet those who had hoped to take it easy for the rest of the day soon had to question their decision: the first stop on our way to Kaiteriteri was a vinery with a fabulous NZD$2 wine-tasting option. And you just don’t say 'no' to two-dollar anything when in New Zealand (to compare, a 1,5L bottle of water normally costs NZD$3-4). The tasting included generous samples of 3 white wines, one rosé and one red, which, in all honesty, were all amazingly good for the couple of dollars we spent. After all, what is a better way of starting your trip around South Island, everyone’s favourite part of New Zealand (too bald a statement? probably not), than indulging yourself in a glass of good beverage?
We got to Kaiteriteri by late afternoon when the sun was still up so it would have been a good chance to go for a dip or just to chill on the beach… Would have. Unfortunately I was not exactly in the mood to do anything (my bad!) so I spent the evening catching up on life like skyping my family for once and responding to the billion emails I had managed to accumulate in ten days’ time - travelling can do that to you sometimes! The place itself - Kaiteriteri, that is, - is definitely worth checking out. Situated right at the doorstep of the Abel Tasman National Park in Tasman Bay, this small town gets some of the best weather in NZ which is rather convenient for all kind of water sports you might fancy.
The following morning we headed towards Nelson Lakes, the northernmost part of the Southern Alps. Although as you can see it wasn’t the sunniest day ever and the water was absolutely freezing cold, jumping in was irresistible! In my case, it was also gut-wrenching thanks to my love-and-hate relationship with water, which was on the hate side at that point. But surely worth it.
Next off was Westport, a small town of some 4,000 residents. The town itself is not so special, but the drive there is gorgeous. It makes a proper prelude to the area of West Coast - isolated from the rest of the country by the natural environment of rugged mountains and rush rainforest, it is pristine, wild, and absolutely breath-taking! As well as rather underpopulated: some of today’s West Coasters were originally drawn to the area by coal and gold mining, but the majority of those residents left after following the gold rush days. Our driver told us to look out for interesting-looking people while we were there, referring to genetic circumstances of inbreeding in these harsh geographiical conditions... I spotted no more than a handful. Other than that, there is really nothing to do in Westport unless you are into surfing - this area is one of the best in all of NZ!
TYPE OF TRIP
- Solo travel
- Package tour
Nelson - Kaiteriteri - Westport - Greymouth - Lake Mahinapua - Franz Josef - Haast - Wanaka - Queenstown - Te Anau - Milford Sound - Queenstown - Arrowtown - Lake Tekapo - Christchurch - Wellington - Auckland - Port Vila, Vanuatu
After Westport we hit Highway 6, a 435 kilometre-long shoreline. This scenic road is definitely one of the pinnacles of my trip around the Kiwiland! On the way to Lake Mahinapua, where one of the Kiwi Experience’s founders has just reopened a lodge, we made a quick stop in Greymouth. Greymouth, too, was once a busy place during the mining boom, but today it looks like a sleepy town that hosts Monteith’s, a local brewery established in 1868. Some of us went there on a trip to learn about their beers and lagers and, of course, sample some on the way (in fact, you can get a really good deal out of it). Good times on the bus!
Lake Mahinapua was added to the KEx itinerary for a couple of reasons. First, it is a pretty nice lake for camping in the wilderness (although there are better lakes out there if you ask me). Second, this overnight stop is meant to bring together everyone from the same bus and have some bonding time: there is literally nothing around the lodge except for a pub, which is also a part of the lodge cottage. As every bus picks their own party theme, folks try to get creative in order to win a prize for the best outfit. And those prizes are pretty decent - for example, bungee jumps and rafting trips!
But the best was yet to come! We hit the road on the way to Franz Josef, one of the two places in New Zealand for which I had been completely with anticipation. Franz Josef (Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere in Maori) is a unique 12-kilometre long glacier that descends from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres above the sea level right into rainforest (!) and moves up to 6 metres a day, changing the landscape all the time. Even better, you can first fly to the glacier on a helicopter and then hike around (weather-permitting)! Not to mention that the whole landscape of Westland National Park where the glacier is located is just drop dead beautiful. I spent my first evening there kayaking around Lake Mapourika (a kettle lake formed by a huge block of ice from Franz Josef): whereas it was all sunny and nice during the day, the rain was pouring down when we went there with kayaks (pictures below). Quite a intense experience, I have to say!
While I was dreaming my days away imagining hiking up glaciers and whatnot, no one mentioned what a gamble I was getting myself into. But unlike in Vegas, I was playing not against the roulette or the casino dealer but the weather. Franz Josef is one of the wettest places in the whole world with annual rainfall of 600-800 mm, so If you go there be prepared for torrential rain and masses of thick, low clouds. When the clouds are too thick, helicopters can drop off hikers on the glacier, but they cannot come back to pick them up due to low visibility. Being such a weather-dependent activity, your trip may or may not be cancelled on the morning of the scheduled day if the clouds appear too heavy. That said, chances of actually making it up there are about 50/50 at best, and you cannot be sure of the hike until the day of - something that I was absolutely unaware of. So when our driver announced that the hike we had signed up for would still be a matter of luck (very good luck in reality) and that the forecast at that point wasn’t looking promising at all, it got pretty frustrating. We were to spend 2 nights in the village hoping to have an extra day just in case, but all trips scheduled for the first day had been cancelled well before our arrival.
By the evening we began to come to terms with the whole situation. It was indeed a gamble after all, even though a nerve-wrecking one! Having gone through a similar situation before, when I went all the way to Arctic Norway to chase the Northern lights and the weather also wasn’t in my favour at first, I tried my best to stay optimistic.
Waking up the next morning and actually being able to see the sun felt incredible! Even though 5 minutes later the sky was more like 50 shades of gray, the trip was still on. Little did we know that only two of the many groups scheduled for that day were going to make it - the earlier your time slot, the better chances of getting there. Having assumed that, I signed up for the second earliest time and - voilà! - we were in the helicopter!
When we landed on the glacier, the clouds had already covered the peaks of the surrounding mountains. Shortly after it started raining, but our guide assured us it would not be a problem and we continued hiking (or climbing?) Franz Josef. The whole event felt and looked surreal! We even witnessed 3 epic ice falls, which looked like a scene from some apocalypses movie. In less than 2 hours the clouds got to thick, so we had to hop on the helicopter and fly back. What a dramatic view though!
Still trying to get my head around how lucky we were to get up to Franz Josef, I was bouncing off the walls with excitement - it was the best morning ever! I could almost smell a great celebration coming up later that evening. Since the rain did seem to go away, I decided to check out the local wildlife centre, which is also a place for conservation of the Rowi Kiwi. Kiwi the bird is an endangered animal, so New Zealand puts a lot of effort into saving them from pests like possums. On my way from the centre back to the lodge my wallet must have fallen out of backpack, which I realized only a few hours later. Not to bother you with details of the emotional roller coaster that I went through following this discovery, luckily I managed to get it back some days later. Endless thanks to all the sympathetic and helpful people who helped me get out of this potential disaster!
After Franz Josef the road took us to Lake Matheson, a truly picture-perfect place. Once we bid our farewell to the coast, it was time to hit the Otago region. We headed to Wanaka, the fifth largest lake in the country. New Zealand is a fairy tale of lakes! The drive there was jaw-dropping - I am literally going through a list of synonyms for beautiful in this post - and once again my cameras had a workout.
Otago is like a candyshop for a travel junkie: this NZ region has so much to offer it might get a little overwhelming! It is an action packed area: bungee jumping, paragliding, canyoning, wine-tasting are just a few of the many things you might fancy trying out. The best place to stay is Queenstown, and oh how gutted I am that I only got to spend 3 days there! This resort town is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu with amazing views of the Remarkables mountain range and is famous for its adventure and ski tourism as well as vibrant night life. Paradise for young travellers and those young at heart! Rumor has it that Queenstown got its name because it was fit for Queen Victoria. Don’t know about Victoria, but it is certainly fit for me!
Having checked out some bars and the famous and fabulous Fergburger (best burgers ever, and I am not even a burger fan), I decided to look at the area from a different perspective, literally - from a bird’s eye view. So I went hang-gliding! The scenery was so gorgeous, it was worth a bit of splurging.
Then it was finally time to check off the second place that I had been the most excited to see while in New Zealand - Milford Sound! This fjord (not an actual sound) has been listed as the world's top travel destination in the 2008 Travelers' Choice Destinations Awards by TripAdvisor. Yet it is not just the fjord that is worth the trip, the road from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a gem of its own. Once again, the weather is a deal-breaker for this activity, and I believe we got very lucky with the gorgeous day we scheduled our trip for. Words don’t do justice to neither the 4-hour drive nor the cruise, so I will let pictures do the job.
It was not exciting to leave Queenstown at all and I will be sure to come back there one day. In the meantime, the next stop on the route was Lake Tekapo, which is renown for its very bright blue water. The shade of blue is so intense and saturated it almost looks fake! In reality, however, this turquoise blue results from rock flour from the surrounding glaciers in the headwaters that grind rock into a fine dust. Combined with the sunlight, these suspended particles give the lake its unique characteristic. Since we travelled with a good weather, we also got some stunning views of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak at 3,754 m.
The last stop of my itinerary was Christchurch, the 3rd largest city in the country. This is the only place from the NZ trip that I am not quite ready to speak highly of. As you might remember, Christchurch suffered 2 large earthquakes in 2010-2011 with a magnitude of 7.1 and 6.3 respectively that left the whole city in ruins. Even though it has been a few years and some buildings have been fully or partly rebuilt since, there are still heaps of empty places all around town. It leaves many visitors with a depressing feeling of how powerless people are against nature. This map of recent earthquake activity in and around Christchurch shows how frequently seismic waves hit the city - apparently, a couple of mini ones happened when I was there!
At the same time, it is really impressive to see how much work has been already done. Christchurch is taking one step at a time, not rushing things through but rather carefully piecing together the life it used to have. It will be interesting to come back here in 10 years! To wrap my stay up, I went to a museum exhibition entitled Selling the Dream on tourism posters and other publicity that aimed to promote New Zealand to domestic and foreign travellers. Really cool!
And so ended my journey around New Zealand. It was an amazing time that I will cherish dearly - but I am sure I will be back! Thus, until later beautiful Aotearoa!